Monuments as Cultural Work for our own Time

W. Fitzhugh Brundage is the William B. Umstead Distinguished Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory, and is the scholarly advisor to the Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina project. 

Until recently few of us may have been aware that we live in an era of heightened interest in commemoration. During the past three decades Americans unknowingly have done their best to match the efforts of the diligent monument builders between 1880 and 1930. There are various plausible explanations for our current monument building frenzy. The nation continues to grapple with the Vietnam War, which is now as conspicuously honored on our landscape as World War Two or any conflict other than the American Civil War. For most of the past two decades this nation has been at war. Consequently, we have many veterans and casualties to honor. We also have suffered unprecedented acts of mass terrorism in Oklahoma City, New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania that have inspired widespread commemoration. Our memorial enthusiasm, finally, reflects the impact of Holocaust memorialization, which has helped us to develop a commemorative vocabulary to grapple with horrific loss while also teaching us that the obligation to “remember” extends to the memory of the downtrodden, the vanquished, and the dispossessed.

Against this backdrop, the nation is now engaged in a spirited and overdue debate over our inherited Confederate shrines. More than just a contemporary manifestation of hyper-political and cultural polarization, this debate testifies to the importance that Americans still assign to memorials. Artists and scholars may express skepticism about the capacity of monuments to do profound cultural work, but the visitors who gravitate to the Vietnam War Memorial on the Washington Mall or the Oklahoma City National Memorial display no evident doubt. Likewise, neither the defenders nor the opponents of Confederate monuments question the enduring importance of these contested memorials.

Urging on this recent confrontation over Confederate monuments is a deep pessimism about our nation’s capacity to make headway, let alone achieve social justice and equality. Monuments that may have seemed to activists during the 1960s as destined to become mere hollow idols have instead evolved into rallying sites for twenty-first century champions of “white Euro-American civilization.” Viral footage of police brutality mocks previous predictions that the United States was poised to cross the threshold to an era of unprecedented post-racial pluralism. At a time when ethnic and racial privilege are being translated into policies that have incalculable effects on the life opportunities of some of the nation's most vulnerable citizens, the Confederate commemorative landscape seems to many to be much more sinister than a quaint inheritance. When defenders of the monuments insist that they retain their privileged place in our civic spaces, opponents predictably perceive a perpetuation of historical memory that does an injustice to the past while also extending the celebration of white privilege for another generation (or longer).

Why, opponents of these monuments ask, are these historical artifacts allowed to perpetuate images and values redolent with white supremacy that are utterly incompatible with modern, pluralist democracy? After the tragic murders in Charleston in 2015 and in Charlottesville in 2017 what useful cultural work do monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury perform?

With varying degrees of intensity and conviction, communities across the nation are grappling with these questions. Richmond could no more remain aloof from these debates than it could from the secession crisis in 1861. More than just the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond was and remains the greatest shrine to the Lost Cause. By any conventional measure -- size, aesthetic ambition, expense -- the Confederate memorials in Richmond are unmatched. And no other city has a commemorative landscape with the grandeur of Monument Avenue. Thus, the challenge is not just the size and number of Confederate memorials but the extent to which they are woven into the fabric of the city that challenges our capacity to reimagine Richmond with fewer or without the monuments.

It is, I contend, essential that we acknowledge that virtually no monuments are sacrosanct.  Each generation, whether through inertia or conscious design, makes the decision whether to preserve monuments. We now have an opportunity, nay obligation, as a community and a society to make a considered decision about the future of these monuments. The onus should be on defenders of the monuments to justify devoting public resources, including some of our most conspicuous public space, to symbols that, at the very least, require drastic reinterpretation lest they remain obstacles to the creation of a more inclusive and equitable civil society. The alternative – leaving the commemorative landscape of Richmond and countless other communities unaltered – is an evasion that will only exacerbate and extend the controversy.


Join the Museum at the final History Happy Hour of the season, Monument Avenue, Shockoe Bottom, and Richmond's Commemorative Landscapethis Monday.